Sarah Gray Cary from Boston to Grenada

Sarah Gray Cary from Boston to Grenada: Shifting Fortunes of an American Family, 1764-1826

            While working with the first-person narratives that inform this book, I found historical moment after moment open up in new and often compelling ways. Knowing for example that tensions in British-occupied Boston were only increasing after the Boston Tea Party in December 1773, Sarah Gray Cary’s hastily arranged departure from Massachusetts in early 1774 takes on new urgency. Writing to her son Henry, years later, Sarah explains: “sailing from Portsmouth -- Boston harbor being blocked with ice . . . the following month, the revolution broke out, and then all intercourse was stopped between us.” Sarah is not only alluding to the Coercive Acts, whereby the British revoked the colony’s charter, but she is also marking the beginnings of the American Revolution and the subsequent closing of Boston Harbor in June 1774. Additional archival records provide details about Sarah’s departure. The Reverend Thomas Cary, Sarah’s brother-in-law, records in his diary on February 8th that “Sister Cary & Ned” arrived in Newburyport from Chelsea and on February 15th that he “Went to Portsmouth with Sister Sally.” British Shipping Records then show that her other brother-in-law, Jonathan Cary, Ship Master, was cleared for departure from Portsmouth to Grenada on February 15, 1774, on the ship Sally.[1] These larger than life events in the timeline of the American history are thus brought into sharper focus as Sarah departs for Grenada to be reunited with her husband, Samuel, after making the very difficult decision to leave their infant son, Samuel Jr., in Chelsea with his grandmother as a precaution for his health and safety.

            In similar ways, Samuel Cary’s decades-long business correspondence between the West

Indies, Great Britain, and colonial America brings precise, often enlightening details about how the transatlantic sugar trade operated. Cary’s March 1767 plantation manual from St. Kitts, in turn, provides specific instructions about managing a sugar estate while also portraying a virtuous, efficient planter engaged in the inhumanity of the slave trade. And four years after the Cary family returns to Massachusetts from Grenada, their son Samuel sent dramatic eyewitness accounts of the sixteen-month rebellion on Grenada led by Julien Fédon that began on March 2, 1795. Samuel will return to the subject of slavery in his letters and memorandum book in poignantly, self-reflective ways. In each account, the Cary family’s distinctively, personal perspectives show how individuals were responding to and experiencing these events as they were unfolding.


     On a lighter note, when fourteen-year-old Lucius Cary writes to his mother from Philadelphia on July 1, 1797, where he has been apprenticed to his brother, Samuel, as a clerk, he notes his reading list from a local circulating library with titles that include: “the Lives of Mahomet, King of Prussia,” “Voyages of Cook and Anson,” “Letters of Chesterfield,” and “Charlotte or Tale of Truth.”[2] Here, Lucius shows both his wide-ranging interests and the variety of reading materials available, which would have pleased Benjamin Franklin who founded the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731, sixty-six years earlier.

            In writing this book, I had expected that the period between the end of the Seven Years’ War and the beginning of the New Republic that corresponds to this family’s story would be dramatic. It was not until I saw these events through the eyes of these first-person accounts and learned of the family’s concerns and reactions that I more fully appreciated the emotional and ethical challenges that these events presented for those who lived through them. Sarah Gray Cary from Boston to Grenada brings this immediacy to this period in early-American history from a multi-generational perspective.


Susan Clair Imbarrato is a professor of English at Minnesota State University Moorhead. She is the author of Traveling Women: Narrative Visions of Early America and Declarations of Independency in Eighteenth-Century American Autobiography. She is also the author of Sarah Gray Cary from Boston to Grenada



[1] SGC to Henry Cary, March 9, 1819, Cary Family Papers III, Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS); February 8 and 15, The Diaries of the Rev. Thomas Cary of Newburyport, Massachusetts, 1762-1806, New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston; and John Knowlton, comp. British Shipping Records, Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Index 7, Jul. 31, 1770–Sept. 7, 1775. Portsmouth, NH: Portsmouth Athenaeum, 2014.

[2] LC to SGC, January 23, 1797 and July 1, 1797, CF Papers III, MHS.